Presented with compelling evidence that many businesses in Duluth are struggling to stay afloat, the Duluth City Council on Monday pushed ahead anyway for an ordinance that's sure to drown even more employers or drive them out of our city.
Councilors have been fumbling along for weeks to enact a city law requiring employers to do what most of them do already: let their workers bank paid days off that can be used when they or a loved one is ill or when there's an emergency. On Monday, councilors continued tweaking their measure, redefining the rate at which workers can accrue days off, expanding who they can take off to care for, giving employers more ability to discipline when the benefit is misused, and requiring an annual review of the law.
The earned-sick-and-safe-time ordinance, as it's called, was worked on and amended as though councilors hadn't received a memo just a couple hours earlier from the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce. President and CEO David Ross sent the memo to alert councilors - or to try to alert them - to a report from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development that found that since 2000 the number of employers in Duluth had dropped 19.8 percent.
Ross called it an "alarming detail," and it is - but it didn't seem to cause much alarm or raise many concerns among our city councilors.
"More recently, Duluth has experienced an overall loss of 73 employers since 2015. This is a 2.9 (percent) decrease," Ross wrote, imploring our elected city representatives to "illustrate empathy for, and advocacy for, employers - as well as for employees."
"It would be wise for us to ask ourselves, 'What can we do to lessen or reverse this decline?' A more challenging question for you, this evening, is, 'Will this unfunded mandate cause our Zenith City to lose even more employers?'"
Almost certainly it will. Even those employers who can absorb this unwanted workplace mandate will emerge from this earned-sick-and-safe-time debate beaten and feeling unwanted. As Greater Downtown Council President Kristi Stokes said in a statement to the News Tribune Opinion page in March, "It's painful to hear our business owners lumped into a category of profit-hungry, greedy owners who don't care about their employees, as some have suggested at public hearings."
That unfortunate depiction is far from true, of course. An overwhelming 90 percent of employers who responded to an online survey last year indicated they already offer earned paid time off, as the City Council-appointed Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force has reported. The vast majority of Duluth employers take care of their workers. Disappointingly, that reality has been overshadowed by a false perception perpetuated time and again during this debate.
In attempting to extend this benefit now to interns, kids with summer jobs, and other part-time and temporary workers, our elected city leaders are only alienating and vilifying the local business community. And they're dividing Duluth.
How many more employers will jump to Superior or Hermantown for a more-hospitable business climate? How many more can Duluth afford to lose? These are the people and businesses providing our jobs and determining our economic well-being.
The memo the City Council chose to dismiss Monday concluded with this plea: "Please give additional consideration to the potential negative impact that a city-mandated, unfunded, earned-sick-and-safe-time ordinance will have on our already declining number of employers."
That certainly doesn't seem too much to ask between now and May 14, the soonest this ordinance could come back to the council for a vote.